Bullying Doesn’t Only Happen in the Playground

We all know about bullies at school, but when we leave education and enter the world of work, we expect it to stop, right? We are grown up. How can anyone bully an adult?

ACAS reports that bullying and harassment complaints have steadily increased in the UK since 1998 and the costs related to dealing with bullying amount to a staggering £18 billion. Sadly, 1 in 4 of us have experienced bullying or been made to feel left out in their place of work.

The ACAS helpline receives over 20,000 calls annually from employees who report that they are being bullied in the workplace. These calls reveal that bullying manifests in a wide variety of ways and across all levels of the workforce, having serious impacts on individual wellbeing, business performance and the UK economy as a whole.

What is Bullying?

The Anti Bullying Alliance defines bullying as “the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online”.

Although bullying does not have a legal definition under the Equality Act, victims of bullying (as opposed to ‘harassment’) are still protected under law.

This is because the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that employers have a ‘duty of care’, that is, they have a responsibility for the welfare of their employees. Included in this ‘duty of care’ is the responsibility to ensure that employees do not have to suffer from bullying at work.

Examples of bullying in the workplace can include, but is certainly not limited to, verbal abuse, threatening behaviour, or discriminating against a member of staff because of protected characteristics such as sexual orientation or race.

Therefore, failure to tackle bullying is a breach of an employer’s duty to provide a safe and healthy environment in which to work and would be breaking the law. As well as a duty of care, it is also in the best interests of the business that bullying is prevented or dealt with swiftly.

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Address workplace bullying with prompt and decisive action

Employers must recognise the seriousness of workplace bullying and make it a priority to address its impacts. Bullying can have a negative impact on the organisation. The effect this can have on an individual’s performance may impact the wider team. Higher absence will mean that colleagues must cover shifts. This can result in even higher absence rates and even higher staff turnover, which will increase recruitment costs. Therefore, it is clear how a workplace that has a culture of intimidating, hostile or offensive behaviour is bad for business too. If an employer fails to deal with a case of bullying and workplace bullies, and the employee quits their job, then they may consider legal action and be eligible to claim constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal. A more serious case may result in a Personal Injury claim against the employer.

What are the effects of workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying can be detrimental to the victim’s well-being.

Victims may suffer from anxiety and stress caused by the fear of experiencing hostile behaviour toward them.

In turn, these can trigger other effects including physical symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Ulcers
  • Sleeplessness
  • Skin rashes
  • High blood pressure
  • Tearfulness
  • Loss of self-confidence

The effects of workplace bullying can be so great that victims are likely to suffer from stress and anxiety just at the thought of having to go to work, which can lead to increased absence levels or possibly even resignation. The damage that bullying does extends beyond the office, even negatively impacting one’s leisure time with friends and family.

You should also consider the impact on those who witness bullying at work. Even though they may not be the victim, they too can begin to feel anxious and stressed. A culture of fear can develop as they may worry about how they too may be treated in the future if they see that management are failing to deal with bullies or are reluctant to do so.

Cultures of toxicity and fear hold the same risks and can lead to increased absence rates, increased turnover, reputation damage and possible claims against you for failing to provide a safe and stress-free place of work.

What can employers do to tackle bullying at work?

Bullying and Harassment Policies

Employers need to create a workplace culture that rejects bullying. The best way to do this is to include a Bullying and Harassment Policy in the organisation’s Employee Handbook, which corresponds with equality, diversity and inclusion policies.

A Bullying and Harassment policy should outline the company’s approach toward handling bullying and harassment and clearly guide employees about what is deemed to be acceptable, how to raise issues and the process that will be followed in the event of a claim of bullying. Such policies should be issued from the start of employment and should be readily accessible at all times.

Managers should receive support, guidance and training on such policies and how to deal with bullies at work, as well as being provided with comprehensive training on the Equality Act 2010 and what constitutes discrimination.

Deal with complaints

Complaints should never be ignored and should be addressed promptly. The longer that a complaint goes unheeded, the more the victim may continue to be bullied, and employers may also set a precedent within the workplace that this sort of behaviour is tolerated, thus creating a fearful atmosphere and culture.

Proving allegations of bullying

Claims of bullying can be complex, and there can be cases where there is little outright, solid evidence or proof. It is not actually upon the person complaining to 100% prove that they were bullied, and in what way.

Instead, it is on the business to be able to evidence whether the bullying was indeed probable or otherwise. This can be achieved by following a robust investigation process that may include speaking to colleagues or other witnesses, reviewing documents, reviewing communications that have happened via email, social media or online communication tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack and listening without judgement to both parties. Learn more about this by reading our blog post about bullying allegations.

Nurture mutual respect with a positive working culture

The chances of bullying issues arising can be lowered by creating a positive workplace culture and healthy relationships in the workplace. Workplace culture should make sure that all staff feel like they are equally valued and encourage equal treatment of one another. Ensure that it is made clear what behaviour is permitted and what is not.

The chances of bullying issues arising can be lowered by promoting a positive working atmosphere, with healthy working relationships. Your team should see and have confidence that senior management will take their concerns seriously and provide adequate support and guidance, whilst also taking necessary action to stamp out any cases of bullying as soon as they are made aware.

Employers should review their wellbeing policies and regularly promote their stance on issues such as bullying. November of each year sees the National Bullying Week campaign and joining such a campaign not only allows you to raise funds for an important cause, but also provides your team with faith that you truly believe such issues should not exist in the workplace or anywhere else.

Establish a zero-tolerance policy

Having a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying ensures that employees feel safe and have the confidence to be happy and work productively in their jobs. It also shows that all managers/supervisors/employees are on the same level with regards to preventing bullying and, regardless of their position, it will not be tolerated.

Lead by example

Behaviour from employers or managers/supervisors needs to set an example for other employees, so people within positions of power should pave the way for acceptable behaviour.

Final thought

How many organisations actively recruit to their values and take great pride in stating that they are a “values-led organisation”? This needs to be maintained throughout the entire employee experience and not just when attracting new people. No organisation would ever consider stating one of their values as “bullying” or just being plain “unkind” to each other, so creating and implementing a company culture that truly reflects your values requires living and breathing it every day!

If you feel as though you are experiencing bullying in the workplace, this can be a very devastating and distressing issue, so it is important to speak to a manager or your HR department (if you have one) in the first instance.

For employers dealing with an allegation of bullying in the workplace, call us today for advice and support, whether that be remote or on site.

Frequently Asked Questions

Useful questions and answers about “What is workplace bullying and how can it be tackled?”

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying in the workplace involves repeated damaging behaviour intending to, for example, intimidate and undermine. This behaviour has a negative impact on others such as damaging mental health and creating an unpleasant and hostile environment.

Is bullying gross misconduct?

Bullying can be considered gross misconduct and addressed via formal disciplinary action. The outcome of this action could be dismissal.

How should I deal with workplace bullying?

It is important for employers to have clear policies and procedures for managing workplace bullying and to follow them promptly. The first step will be to gather all the facts via a thorough investigation.